The New York Times asked me to write a column for Monday about whether George Steinbrenner should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
I remembered being a frequent critic of Steinbrenner, when I became a sports columnist in 1982. I often wrote that he should get out of town, go back to Tampa or Cleveland, because his crude bullying did not belong in Big Town. (Supply your own current punch line to that.)
He did odious things but over the years I developed a partial grudging respect for him as a big-timer who could take a certain amount of banter, like most politicians and public figures.
I looked at him from the perspective of a childhood Brooklyn Dodger fan who had suffered terribly, who never, ever, rooted for the Yankees. But at least the Yankees stayed in the Bronx, a symbol of domination and bluster and endless sentimentality with all their deities and trained American eagles swooping around the big ballpark during post-season games. Overkill. The Yankee way.
But when the Times asked me to write about George and the Hall, I decided he had upgraded a historic franchise, and was – in neutral terms – an epic figure in his business, and he belonged in the Hall.
When the column appeared on the NYT web site Sunday evening, many knowing readers criticized my reasoning, in the Comments section. Others wrote to my NYT address. (firstname.lastname@example.org.) I was impressed by so many arguments to keep him out:
--His meanness discredited anything the Yankees won.
---He broke rules, not as a player but as an owner, and that should count to keep him out.
---In fact, he went from 1978 to 1996 without winning a World Series, the longest drought since Babe Ruth arrived. How smart could he be?
---It was wrong of me to compare his splurging with cable and attendance money with the bargain-basement tactics of pioneer Hall of Fame owners like Connie Mack and Clark Griffith, both former players who helped build baseball.
--The Hall voters (NYT writers, including this pensioner, do not vote for such honors) have shunned known and suspected users of PEDs. If McGwire and Clemens and Bonds and Sosa are still outside, what about an owner who hired a gambler to dish dirt on Dave Winfield, who made illegal political contributions?
---He was a bully who mistreated many people, from baseball officials to players to humble workers. This was true. Some readers had one nasty brush with The Boss, and never forgot it. The first time I met him was in 1976, when I was still a cityside reporter and was sent up to the Stadium as the Yanks prepared for their first World Series since 1964. The Boss gushed over my work on Loretta Lynn’s book, but a minute later he reamed out a Stadium supervisor named Kelly for minute imperfections. It was a way for him to demonstrate his power to me. It was embarrassing to be present for this.
But four decades later I have come to think he was a giant as an owner, and should get in the Hall one of these years.
I love the readers’ comments – so informed, so passionate, and polite. But I think character has long been ignored by the Hall anyway. There are racists in the Hall, from players to commissioners; many great stars led terrible lives – drinking, carousing, misbehaving, to disgrace and early death. Some executives in the Hall are mere lodge brothers, voted in during a simpler time.
George Steinbrenner was complicated. He bought a failing franchise and forced it back to the top. He won 11 pennants. He made the Yankees big-time.
Finally, I made an allusion to a column I wrote in 1986 urging a burned-out Boss to sell the franchise to a local builder who needed a hobby, a focus in life. I did not mention Donald Trump by name but many readers compared Steinbrenner’s bullying with Trump’s.
As a New Yorker, who has met both men, I can attest that Steinbrenner was more centered, more educated, more generous than Trump.
It’s not as if anybody was voting for George Steinbrenner to be President, for goodness’ sakes.
I thank the readers who prodded my reasoning. Those who care to prod it here are welcome. The debate goes on.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
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